Chess Psychology (1): “Drama” on the Chessboard

The results of chess games or tournaments are not only decided by the strength of players, but rather, psychology plays a crucial role. Some shrewd players manage to manipulate their facial expression and movement in order to make their opponents confused or exert pressures on their opponents. As a result, many players lose their games not because they are at disadvantage of their strength, but because they lose in the competition of psychology. In this article, we are going to analyze some common psychological tactics players utilize during chess games and their effects to their opponents.

1) Acting

The 8th World Champion Mikhail Tal was one of the most skilled “actors” in front of the chessboard. He often played with remarkable speed and confidence, and made his opponents feel uncomfortable. In one game Tal played against Fischer, Tal was in trouble, and he knew that if Fischer played the correct move, he would lose soon. He detected from Fischer’s facial expression that Fischer intended to play this move, but in the same way Fischer was observing his facial expression and movement. In a flash of inspiration, Tal displayed his exquisite acting skills. He began to walk around the table, and his face was inscribed with easiness and confidence. Fischer hesitated and at last did not play the correct move, which resulted in Tal’s victory.

Cheerful Tal

Tal’s psychological strategy appeals to me as I have similar experience throughout my chess career. In National Team Championship B of 2014, I played in Board Four, and Board Five of our team was my intimate friend, back to then she was only 11 years old. I was amazed to witness that in several games where she was a piece down, she still walked around with easy pace and smiling face, which made her opponents doubt in their positions and led to their mistakes. In this way, she miraculously saved many games against strong players, and contributed a lot to the spectacular performance of our team.

Mikhail Botvinnik also learned such psychological tactics after his World Champion title was taken by Tal. In their rematch, Botvinnik performed excellently and took the lead, but Tal was tenacious. In one critical game, Tal had gained a remarkable advantage in the endgame, and the game was adjourned. When Botvinnik studied this endgame, he found that he had the chance to make a draw if Tal did not play every move precisely. The next day wise Botvinnik played a psychological trick: he pretended that he was in despair when he arrived at the match venue. He did not even bring coffee which he brought with him every game, which successfully convinced Tal and the audience that he would resign very soon. He deliberately played every move slowly, as if he had not analyzed this variation on the previous day. Deceived by Botvinnik’s performance, Tal was not careful enough and failed to play the most precise moves, which enabled Botvinnik to save the game with a draw.

Botvinnik against Tal
2) Exploring from eyes

The eyes are the windows to the soul. By looking at opponents’ eyes, players can explore what their opponents are thinking about, and whether they look confident or fearful, cheerful or despaired. Therefore, a lot of players like to cover their eyes with their hands during their games.

Again Tal possessed many tactics in this area. He was not only a famous “actor” but also a skilled magician. It was believed that Tal’s magical stare could hypnotize his opponents. One of his opponents, Pal Benko, once wore eyes shades to avoid Tal’s gaze. In response, Tal took a huge pair of sunglasses and put them on. This amused everyone, even Benko himself, who at least laughed after he resigned.

Tal's stare
3) Disturbance

Noise and the stare of the audience can be a great disturbance to chess players. Some players are immune to such disturbance, but most players cannot bear a single second. This is also why Fischer refused to show up in the second round of the World Championship match. When I watched the Grand Chess Tour in London, I could feel the pressure of these top players, because a large number of spectators were sitting there and watching their games.

Grand Chess Tour of London, 2019. Taken in Olympia Exhibition Hall, London.

Disturbance can also come from opponents. The “hated defector” Victor Korchnoi was well-known for his aggressive personality, and his hatred against the Soviet Union was not only revealed in political behavior, but also displayed over the chessboard. It was said that he often kicked his Soviet opponents under the table, which was a great disturbance for many players. During his World Championship match against Karpov, he constantly protested against Karpov’s supporter, psychology professor Vladimir Zukhar, just for sitting in the audience. But ironically, as Korchnoi spent too much energy disturbing his opponents rather than concentrating on his moves, he lost several critical games.

Victor Korchnoi

When I was young, disturbance from opponents was the thing I feared most. Especially when I encountered young boys who were much weaker than me, but moved pieces aggressively and constantly made noise of contempt, I felt annoyed and often made mistakes. But as I grew up, I gradually learned to ignore such disturbance and forced myself to focus on games rather than the behavior of my opponents.

It is worth noting that these psychological tricks no longer work when it comes to online tournaments. Facial expression, movement, eye contact, and noise are no longer decisive factors. This is one of the most crucial reasons why for some players, there is a large disparity between their performance in online and live tournaments. Some of the players are perplexed when they play chess in front of the computer – not being able to detect their opponents’ body languages and feelings, while the others, without all means of disturbance, are able to maximize their strength in online games.


-Kasparov, G. 2007. How life Imitates Chess.



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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